Thursday, 13 November 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on radon protection measures, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators for seven minutes, Senators may share time with the agreement of the House, and the Minister will be called upon ten minutes from the conclusion of the debate to take questions from spokespersons.
We all watched the funeral in Limerick yesterday with sadness and great sympathy and the whole country was appalled at the event that led to it. I am very disappointed we do not have the opportunity in this House today to discuss gangland crime. The Dáil is having a debate on it today. I do not understand why not one of 20 Ministers of State is available to come to this House. Many Senators said they would like an opportunity to speak on this topic and many good suggestions were made on the Order of Business some days ago.
I am really disappointed about the lack of debate. Will the Deputy Leader explain the resistance to having current debates in this House? Could we please ensure we have them given that Senators on all sides of the House are seeking them? It is very important for the Seanad and country that we discuss topical issues. I appeal to the Deputy Leader to take up this issue and ensure it is acted upon in the coming weeks.
I want to focus on some of the decisions made by the Government in recent weeks. It is becoming very clear to me that neither the Taoiseach nor his Government has the temperament to deal with the difficult times and make the difficult decisions that are required. I say this for a number of reasons. The Government is in denial and not facing up to the truth about a number of issues. This is evident from recent decisions on medical cards and cuts in education. It was evident yesterday in the debate on cervical cancer vaccines.
The Government accused Deputy Kenny of being hysterical and of scaremongering in his response in the debate on cervical cancer vaccines. He asked his questions on the withdrawal of the vaccine thoughtfully and calmly and he received an hysterical response from the Taoiseach, whom I believe was in denial. Many Senators will have heard the Nobel prize-winning scientist on "Morning Ireland" this morning confirming Fine Gael's view that the vaccine is life saving and effective. The scientist confirmed the view that one should not wait for screening and instead administer the vaccine, thereby saving lives. What Fine Gael was saying about the efficacy of the vaccine was accurate. It was not hysterical or scaremongering. I want to amend the Order of Business today to have a debate on the withdrawal of the cervical vaccine.
I concur with much of what Senator Fitzgerald has just said. On the Order of Business yesterday, I referred to the lack of business in the House at present. This was raised by my colleagues and by Senator Fitzgerald on the preceding day. Let us be absolutely clear that I believe the Government is winding down the importance of this House.
It is trying to reduce to a minimum the impact of debate in the House and to undermine us in what we are doing.
A classic issue arose yesterday. When we mentioned the lack of legislation in the House, we received a response from the Government side on the important issues that were being debated. That was not the issue at all and we should therefore park that idea. Everybody on this side of the House believes yesterday's fisheries debate, for example, was very important. However, it seems it requires multitasking on the Government side if its Members must deal with legislation, a motion and a debate in the same week or fortnight. That is the real issue.
We are dealing with the minimum amount of legislation and harmless debates. By this, I mean that if we want to discuss fishing we should place on the record some of the issues raised by Senator O'Donovan over recent years on the appalling treatment of salmon fishermen along the west coast. When we raised the matter on this side of the House, we received very little support from the other side. The same applies to other issues, including that of quotas. We can certainly table motions to deal with these issues, on which the House must divide and in respect of which Members' votes must match their words. However, the idea of people standing up and saying what they want against Government policy must be considered in light of the fact that, day after day, the greatest critics of Government policy are on the Government side of the House. We need straightness in our debates and need to deal with the matter as we go along.
I agree completely that we need to be relevant. Issues of importance do arise, including the one raised by Senator Fitzgerald and gangland crime. Essential legislative changes are required to give greater authority to the police and Judiciary to deal with gangland crime. The Leader stated yesterday he would be happy to allow for this. There are 20 Ministers of State and 15 Cabinet members. Why, therefore, can we not have a debate on the issue raised by Senator Fitzgerald, for example, or that of gangland crime and the legislative changes necessary to address it?
The Leader responded positively yesterday to issues raised by various Senators on this side of the House. Some Members on the Government side, including Senator Ormonde, stated how important it was to keep the issue of gangland crime on the agenda, yet there is no attempt made to deal with it today. There is no attempt to be topical or to respond to what is going on in the world around us. Instead, it has been decided to talk about radon gas. While it is important, it is not as important as any of the other matters we could be discussing today. There is no urgency about the debate on radon gas, as important as it is, bearing in mind that I raised the issue of radon gas many times over the past four or five years and referred to the various parts of the country where it poses a problem. It is not the issue; the issue concerns what we are not talking about.
I listened to Mr. Brian Goggin of the Bank of Ireland on the radio this morning announcing half-year profits for the bank of €650 million. He stated the profit will be retained as opposed to being distributed as dividends. It is clear the bank needs to do this to ensure it can recapitalise. However, recapitalisation should not be done at the expense of small businesses. At present, small businesses throughout the country are finding it very difficult to obtain credit, term loans and overdrafts. We need to ensure we do not sacrifice small businesses at the altar of bank recapitalisation because it is small businesses that will generate jobs that we hope will bring the country out of the recession. The banks took in €25 billion since the bailout in October and the Government needs to tell them to extend lines of credit to small businesses.
Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency published its report on water quality. There were some shocking and very worrying statistics therein. Faecal coliforms are being found in over half of our groundwater samples. Some 30% of our rivers are polluted and 66% of lakes nationally have unsatisfactory water standards. While the Minister recognises this and has stated further investment is required because we do not want another crisis such as that in Galway, it is not clear that investment is forthcoming. Will the Deputy Leader arrange for a debate in the House with his party colleague to determine where money will be invested to improve our water quality?
Given that Irish grocery prices are 25% higher than those in the United Kingdom, I was glad to see the announcement this morning that one major retailer intends to invest €350 million in the establishment of 35 new stores in this country. I hope a discount retailer will help to drive down prices for Irish shoppers.
I was glad to see the price of oil has dropped to its lowest level in two years, that is, to $53 per barrel. This is interesting because more than 60% of our electricity is generated from oil and gas. Yesterday, Sustainable Energy Ireland stated our electricity prices are 20% higher than the European average. It is vital that the reduction in the price of oil be passed on so our hard-pressed consumers benefit.
Given that the price of oil has dropped significantly and given that there is a real need to ensure the public finances are kept in order and we reduce our carbon footprint, would it not now be appropriate to consider increasing further the tax on petrol? This is because the tax on petrol was the most acceptable part of the budget, notwithstanding the fact that some people drew attention to it. We do need to raise taxes and there is public acceptance at the price point that now obtains in respect of petrol.
Given that the price of oil will fall further, would it not be appropriate for this House to suggest to the Minister that increasing the tax on petrol could help considerably in light of the significant borrowing required to get us through the recession? In addition, could Members of this House not encourage members of the Irish Central Bank who go to Frankfurt to ensure European Central Bank rates will continue to fall? Where there is significant room for manoeuvre, they should be encouraged to secure another decrease of 0.5% or 1% such that, by 2010, we will be through this downturn in the economy.
I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Fitzgerald.
Let me refer to the cutbacks in the budget affecting the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. The cutbacks proposed are 26% and 43%, respectively, whereas the allocation to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is reduced by 4%. I question the motivation of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, in regard to the allocations to these two bodies. I believe the Minister is acting in a mala fides manner with these disproportionate cutbacks.
The work of these bodies has been touched upon in this House. Both have a very important function. The Irish Human Rights Commission acts in respect of the Good Friday Agreement. The president of that body has a particular standing in law to ensure compliance with constitutional rights and freedoms and with rights and freedoms guaranteed by any international agreement, treaty or convention. This body has a very important role to play in implementing conventions from the United Nations and the Irish Council of Europe and rights derived from the EU treaties.
The Government was embarrassed by the report of that body in respect of extraordinary rendition and the manner in which the Government has operated in that arena has not reflected well on this country. It is important and self-evident that this body has an important role to play in ensuring oversight of the Government's activities in this area. The Equality Authority is the designated body under EU law which ensures that principles of equality are respected in many areas.
The Minister came to the House yesterday and suggested that a Fianna Fáil-led Government had established the Criminal Assets Bureau. He was corrected and told it was a Fine Gael-led coalition Government, from 1994 to 1997, that established that body. In response to a request that assets confiscated by the CAB would be ring-fenced to help the communities most affected by the scourge of drug addiction, the Minister made the excuse that there is a variability in the value of the assets confiscated and that this would be somehow troubling to the voluntary bodies involved in drug treatment. That is an entirely fallacious excuse.
The Minister's excuse for the cutbacks in the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority is that——
——he has prioritised the fight against crime. The Minister cannot slide so easily out of this. He cannot undermine entirely the effectiveness of these bodies by making these disproportionate cutbacks. We have obligations under the Constitution, EU law and international conventions, and these are the bodies that ensure that the State and State bodies uphold the principles to which it has signed up.
I think that it does not go unnoticed by the Minister that the president of the Irish Human Rights Commission is a former Fine Gael Senator. I believe that is why the Minister is not acting in good faith with respect to the cutbacks for these bodies.
Will the Deputy Leader request the presence of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, to bring the House up to date on the national strategy for improving our competitiveness? Last week I said that our industrial electricity costs are the highest in Europe, at 34.4% above the EU average. I tried to decode where these costs arise other than in the price of oil and the inputs into creating electricity, but I am not satisfied with the answer I got. I may have to submit a freedom of information request concerning the reason our electricity costs are so high.
According to Mark Fielding of the Irish Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, in the past two months its helpline has had a 900% increase in calls from struggling businesses. Many of the calls are from companies inquiring how they can make people redundant or temporarily redundant, or how they can put workers on shorter weeks. These are three of the main issues affecting small and medium-sized companies at present — this does not include the matter of weak sterling, to which I drew attention before, which never gets on the radar. We do not ask the Government to get us out of the corner of weak sterling and strong euro, but we need help in areas in which the Government can interfere.
Senator Quinn has often spoken in the past about companies being run by accountants. I have heard him say that many times in 25 years. Companies run by big businesses or by accountants are now pushing out the boat on payment to smaller companies. The period has increased from 40 to 65 days, putting pressure on small and medium-sized companies in respect of cash flow. I want the Government to get energised on this by putting heat under the banks. The whole country knows there is a proposed bail-out for the banks, if that is required in the next few years. I want to see the Government coming forward with a proposal to put the heat on the banks——
——to open up cashflow. Even very reputable companies are being asked for this and pressure is being put on them. The country was invigorated and engaged with what the Government did for the banks to save the economy. I am talking about saving employment in our country, so that companies will not have to let people go. I want the Government to come out forcibly and put pressure on the banks to increase the cashflow for companies.
I support what Senator O'Toole said about the absence of serious business in the House. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. About one third of Members are present for the Order of Business. The numbers have been dwindling every day for the past two weeks, which shows that our membership feels we are increasingly irrelevant.
There was a good debate last night on the CAB. It is very important that we continue to look at the issue of gangland warfare. We should also pay tribute to Deputy Tony Gregory who first came up with the idea of linking social welfare, inland revenue and the police. That was resisted but the suggestion was eventually taken on board by the Government in establishing the CAB.
I was initially very heartened when I heard that this person, Gerard Dundon, was in jail, but I understand — I am prepared to be corrected — that he surrendered himself by turning up in an armour-plated vehicle. He summoned his cohort of supporters with a public address system and marched in triumph to the jail. That kind of vanity must be put down.
I support Senator Hannigan on the water issue. I put down motion 11 on that issue and perhaps the Leader will consider taking it at an early date. It is worrying that one third of our rivers are heavily polluted and that 50% of the ground water is contaminated by animal and human sewage. This is partly because of the policy of once-off housing that was very widely supported by rural Members. That must be examined.
The principal issue is that of cervical cancer and I strongly support Senator Fitzgerald on this. It is extraordinary that we are not prepared to pay a fraction of what we wasted on e-voting machines to save the lives of young women, which that vaccination undoubtedly will accomplish. I salute Deputy Jim McDaid for acting in concert with his Hippocratic oath and abstaining in a division in the other House yesterday. I have every respect for Deputy Rory O'Hanlon who is an amiable, decent man, and I know from reports that he is a good and caring general practitioner. However, I do not believe he can stand in the lists against a Nobel prize-winning scientist on the matter of the human papilloma virus.
Having heard a senior figure from the Bank of Ireland use the word "optionality" on the news this morning, I am really worried. As one who knows little about economics, I start to worry when I hear people such as this retreat into that type of jargon.
While I realise the issue I raise was discussed yesterday, the future of the fishing industry is a matter of great importance. This morning, we awoke to learn that the European Commission is calling for the north-west fishing grounds to be closed to the whitefish fleet. Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss this specific issue?
In response to a serious problem with our ageing fleet 12 years ago, the current Administration proceeded with a renewal of the whitefish fleet. Of the 37 new vessels, 16 operate from Greencastle. We have had the Cawley report and decommissioning schemes and the industry endured significant pain in an effort to become competitive and safeguard its future. Despite many fishermen being unable to join the decommissioning scheme, the European Commission is asking them to start paying for their new vessels while refusing to allow them to fish to secure the income they need. This is a serious issue.
The only reason I raise the matter again is that a new and serious issue has arisen. While Killybegs is mentioned most often in connection with the fishing industry in County Donegal, the largest whitefish fleet in Ireland is based in Greencastle, three miles from where I live. In that regard, I declare an interest.
I call for this issue to be revisited before the beginning of December when talks on the fishing industry are due to commence at European Union level. The Commission's proposal is unacceptable and I do not believe it reflects environmental circumstances. Fishermen need to be able to earn a living and pay for their boats. If they are not allowed to remain at sea, we will have to close down the fishing industry.
The second issue I raise is the report on water quality issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Speaking on the Adjournment several months ago, I asked for funding for the group sewerage scheme to be increased to the same level as funding for the group water scheme.
I strongly support the points made by Senators Fitzgerald and O'Toole on the urgent need for the House to be seen to debate current topical issues of national importance, not only the issue of gangland crime but also the economy. As Senator Norris noted, the House had a useful debate on the Criminal Assets Bureau yesterday. I acknowledge the valiant efforts of Deputy Tony Gregory and the former Ministers for Justice, Ms Nora Owen and Deputy John O'Donoghue, in dealing with this important issue. In that regard, we all wore the same green jersey and a good day's work was done on behalf of the State.
The House urgently needs to get to grips with the important issues of the day. I suggest that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges urgently re-examine the arrangements governing the Order of Business. Subject to the discretion of the Cathaoirleach, the Order of Business should, where necessary, be allowed to run to at least one hour.
One of today's newspapers features a disturbing report on Government finances which indicates that debt levels are spiralling out of control. An eminent economist alleges that gross domestic product will shrink by 2%, if not 3%, next year, whereas the forecast on which the budget was based was that GDP would shrink by only 1%. In such circumstances, borrowing would have to increase to €19 billion next year, €6 billion more than the Government anticipates. In light of this information, does the Deputy Leader anticipate that further corrective action will be taken through short-term financial measures, as appears to be necessary based on the frightening report published today?
I concur with colleagues on the importance of having discussion and debate in the Chamber on matters of national importance. I also wholeheartedly support the views expressed on gangland crime. I congratulate the Garda on some of its actions in the past 24 hours and its success in putting one of Limerick's serious criminals behind bars, where I hope he will remain for a long time. I also hope his brother will follow him.
I ask that, rather than trying to score political points, the leaders of the political parties and Independent group agree a procedure to allow regular discussions to take place on matters of national importance. I fear that if the House were to agree to hold a debate on gangland crime or the economy today, a Minister or Minister or State who comes to the House because the relevant Minister is not available will be slagged off, as it were. We cannot expect Ministers to wait for the House to order its business before arranging their diaries for the day. If we are genuine and sincere on this issue, we should ask the leaders to enter into meaningful discussions to try to alter the current arrangements for taking the Order of Business with a view to accommodating a specific period for holding debates agreed by the House.
I have raised two important issues in the past two weeks. I asked the Leader to enter into negotiations and discussions with other party leaders, groups and individual Senators to wear the green jersey and support Irish small and medium size enterprises and buy Irish goods. I will not ask the Deputy Leader to respond as I made the request to the Leader and he should provide a progress report on what action has been taken in this regard. This is an important issue on which the Seanad can set and drive forward the agenda.
The second issue I raised was the availability of bank credit to businesses and households. I am concerned about the impact of the credit squeeze on the economy. While I welcome the recent interest rate reductions, including the cut in the European Central Bank's interest rate, and await with interest the outcome of the Irish banks' efforts to raise money in the international markets in the coming weeks, the issue of fundamental importance is the availability of credit. I ask that the Leader report Senators' comments on this issue to the Minister for Finance.
I support and will, if necessary, second the amendment proposed to the Order of Business by Senator Fitzgerald on the need for a debate on the Government U-turn on the cervical cancer vaccination programme. The impressive and inspiring Nobel prize-winning scientist who spoke on "Morning Ireland" today concluded that the vaccination programme would save lives. This makes clear what the Government's reversal of policy means for women and young girls. Women, anyone with an interest in public health promotion and all those who have young daughters should be supportive of the need for a reversal of the Government's reversal and a return to the Minister for Health and Children's original position of three months ago that the programme would be rolled out next year. A debate is needed.
I am pleased to announce I will speak at a feminist open forum protest at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the spire on O'Connell Street. We ask people to come forward and express their opposition to the Government's reversal.
I accept that and I want to ask the Deputy Leader whether he will support the protest in opposition to the postponement of the roll-out of the vaccination programme.
Will the Deputy Leader clarify something the Leader said in the House on Tuesday in response to my question about the Climate Protection Bill which, as Members know, is before the House? Its resumed debate is extremely topical, particularly in light of the recent shocking report on pollution levels in Ireland by the Environmental Protection Agency. I want to ask the Deputy Leader for clarification as to when precisely in the spring the Leader proposes to resume the debate on this Bill. The Leader said on Tuesday that early in the next session, in the spring, he would have the Bill come back to the House. I want to ask the Deputy Leader to confirm also that Government time will be given to debate the Climate Protection Bill, to resume Second Stage and move it on, because that was what had originally been agreed in October last year when the Bill was first debated before the House. Clearly the need for its debate has become more pressing and urgent in the light of recent reports.
The action of the banks is one area we must keep on the Seanad agenda. It is absolutely appalling that after being bailed out, they are making no effort to help small and medium businesses get the economy off the ground. The moment they were bailed out, some €25 billion in deposits were paid into the banks.
Listening to the radio this morning, I was very disappointed with the Bank of Ireland, and we should have an ongoing debate in the House in this regard. The public are unaware of what is going on. I found it difficult to understand what the head of the Bank of Ireland was saying this morning in his presentation on radio. The public needs to know exactly the attitude of the banks at the moment. It is only six months since they were throwing money around, so to speak. Mortgages for more than 100% were being handed out, and yet when people seek to extend their overdrafts or term loans, they are being given the thumbs down. I do not like the attitude of the banks at the moment, and this House has a duty to let the public know how we feel about this. The banks have done very well out of this country over the years. It is time they helped the economy out now. I am laying it on the line that the banks have a very big responsibility and I would like them to honour that.
I also want to express my deep concern and disgust at the devastation caused in Limerick with the brutal slaying of a model citizen, young Shane Geoghegan. Speakers on all sides of the House have said we need to exercise relevance in Seanad Éireann. This is one of the biggest concerns among ordinary law abiding people, namely, the future and security of our citizens. What happened this week is having a seriously negative effect on society and on the confidence of our people that they are being protected in their homes. I can recall former Ministers not so long ago talking about zero tolerance. Where is zero tolerance today when we see these people driving around in bullet-proof cars and giving two fingers to the law and the country's authorities? It is a serious matter that we need to be concerned about in the Seanad and should debate urgently, namely, the whole future regarding crime, especially gangland crime, and citizens' safety. It is an area in which Senators should have an interest and I ask the Deputy Leader to provide time soon for a debate on all this.
I have raised on a number of occasions the issue of the national waste management strategy, and I am aware the Deputy Leader, Senator Boyle, has an interest in this area. I see in today's newspapers that Indaver Ireland is again proposing more incinerators for Cork Harbour. Other communities throughout the country are being divided by proposals for incinerators. No clear strategy or co-ordination is being shown by Government in the area of waste management. Last week and the week before we heard about the waste management crisis that is looming because of the lack of markets for recyclable materials. At the same time, ad hoc decisions are being taken by both the public and private sectors with proposals for incinerators. If they are all built, I do not know how they will keep going. Will they burn one another? That number of incinerators is unsustainable. Regardless of whether one is for incineration, a clear strategy is needed from the Government on waste management. I call on the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the Seanad, inform Members of the strategy and talk to them about the co-ordination of waste management services in this country before it is too late.
I, too, support the call for a debate on the cervical cancer vaccine. I would like to see a wider debate on the whole cancer area, although I know we have had such debates. If resources were available, the provision of the vaccine programme would be going ahead. I hate to hear provocative language being used on the Opposition side, such as "U-turns". I would much prefer the word "postponement".
The Government is committed to the treatment and prevention of all cancers, and we have had that debate many times in this House. One only has to look at the appointment of Professor Tom Keane and the extra €55 million that has been allocated in the budget for the centres of excellence. If the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, had money, the provision of the vaccine would be going ahead. At the moment, the way forward is the national screening programme which will cover 1.1 million women in this country. It will cut cancer by 80% and it is owing only to financial restraints that the vaccine is not being introduced at this time.
I was very impressed when I heard the eminent scientist, the Nobel prize winner, this morning on "Morning Ireland". I listened with interest to what he had to say and was surprised to hear that the duration of the vaccine is five to seven years. Given that it is only two to three years old, I do not believe there is any need to be jumping up and down about it, as it were, at this stage. We are going to spend €35 million on a national screening programme, which will cover 1.1 million women. If that is not an estimation of how the Government is committed to the treatment of cancer, I do not know what is.
About three or four weeks ago, in response to a demand for a debate on the economy, finance and banking, the Leader promised that such a debate would take place on a regular basis, at least once a month. I am not sure how long ago that was but it seems to be four or five weeks ago. Today is a typical example of an occasion when we should have such a debate, given all the news that is emerging. Instead, we are debating radon protection measures. While this is important, it is not as important as finance, the economy and banking. We have heard many on both sides of the House speak about that today. I do not understand why something as important as this debate on finance and the economy is being delayed. Those who have spoken today about the use of this House perhaps being diminished because of the Government's attitude towards it must merit some support for their position.
The crisis is not just in Ireland. I was telling Senator Ross that I read this morning that the British Minister in charge of finance said that had they known the situation was going to be as it is, they would not have bid for the Olympic Games in 2012. The situation has changed so dramatically there, I do not know whether they will back out.
There is a problem for small businesses in particular. With the credit squeeze, there is very definitely a cash flow problem and there are various solutions. It is interesting that Senator Mary White said one the solutions should be to call on the banks to release more cash. Another solution being advanced is that smaller businesses should be allowed to extend the length of time they have to pay, from 30 to 60 days. That will cause problems to their creditors, so it is not as easy as that. However, I mention this because it seems to me that today is a typical day when we might have used our time to concentrate on that motion. I support the amendment tabled by Fine Gael that we should have that other debate as well, because today provides a good opportunity for that.
We referred earlier to gangland crime and a culprit driving into a Limerick Garda station in his bullet-proof vehicle to hand himself up. That was interesting. What stunned me is that there are 32 offences against him and he was still out in the open. Whatever legislation we have that controls and constrains the gardaí from being able to apprehend someone like that and put him in jail rather than have him come in voluntarily is another debate we should have today. We should be debating not just the economy but also gangland crime.
On Senator Quinn's point, one report today suggests that the person who has been lodged in Limerick Prison handed himself up to the courts office and the gardaí were notified. If this is correct, it suggests that the intensity of the public outrage is having a psychological effect on these people. I very much empathise with the views put forward today that there should be some accommodation to have an urgent discussion, an ongoing debate, on a profound item of this nature.
There have been some very courageous people in Limerick who have gone before the television cameras and spoke their hearts and minds, representing the terrible trauma that exists in Limerick. To do that is courageous because these gangland members are absolutely brutal — there should be no doubt about that. If the debate is diluted or diminished in any way, they will return to their old ways.
I have a feeling from this latest episode that there is a crack coming in the gangland cohesion in Limerick, and that can be a powerful weapon if properly used and fuelled by the Members of these Houses. I agree with Senator Callely that the leaders here should have a meeting to find some mechanism whereby issues of that nature, which are of major national emergency, can be discussed. There is always a danger on the Order of Business when we are working against the clock that good ideas are not developed, and they could be developed with a more elongated debate here. I listened on the Order of Business to some points put forward and they are well worth expanding on and putting forward to Government for consideration.
The Garda Commissioner made it clear that it is exceptionally difficult for the Garda Síochána to handle these cases because of the intimidation of witnesses and people are afraid to come forward. In this atmosphere people have come forward, have come before the camera, and we need to come behind them now, not in a week's time but immediately.
That is not relevant. The time is up and other Senators want to make points. We are dealing with questions to the Leader. People who move like that will not be called on the Order of Business and I will call the next speaker. Senator Twomey, without interruption.
I hope some of the comments made in the House this morning do not receive a wider audience because the idea that we cannot have debates that might become political and upset a sensitive Minister of State is ridiculous, when we see that exactly the same debate is happening today in the Lower House. Let us get real about this. The Leader should ignore those comments. We should have debates in real time and not worry about them getting political. That is the nature of our political system.
At a time when organised crime is growing out of control in Limerick, there are a huge number of distressing crimes being committed across the country. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to come here and present his solutions to what is happening with crime? I was distressed to hear that the Minister and the Garda Commissioner say that they have the resources and the ability to fight serous crime when clearly they do not. We are being made aware they are throwing open the doors of prisons across the country. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be brought in here to should explain what is going on.
I add my words to those of previous Senators who referred to the current banking situation and the pressure that is bringing to bear on smaller businesses. I received two phone calls this morning from two small businesses in west Donegal, one in the tourism sector and one in the construction-manufacturing sector. They have been in business for a long number of years and the banks are putting increasing pressure on them regarding overdrafts and other financial incentives that would have been available a short few years ago.
We need to review the current position of the banks. These are the same banks that inflicted huge hardship on many Irish pensioners, who had small savings a few years ago, by giving the names of those pensioners to the Revenue Commissioners. I refer to the so-called offshore accounts where names were signed by bank managers. Individuals did not sign up to these accounts, the bank managers signed up to them on behalf of very vulnerable people. This House should lead by example by having a very serious and constructive debate on where the banks are at present and let us review the position in light of the guarantees given by the Government. With those guarantees there should be a responsibility and the banks should fulfil that responsibility. I call on the Leader to have an emergency debate on banking in this country. Let us review the present position because it appears to be changing by the day. The banks appear to be changing the guidelines and raising the bar, and that is affecting jobs. We must support our indigenous employers. I want to make that point with some force because it is a cause of concern. The two companies I referred to in Donegal are in danger of laying workers off as a result cashflow, and that is determined by the banks.
I join my colleagues in calling for relevant debates on topical issues that concern the public. Both sides of the House this morning requested debates on gangland crime, education cuts, which we have asked for on this side of the House for the past five or six weeks, and, as Senator Quinn said, the economy. We were assured by the Leader of the House five or six weeks ago that we would have rolling debates on the economy. The wheels must have fallen off the wagon because we have had no rolling debate. We have had no debate whatsoever on the economy since he announced that.
Were it not for Members of this House using their Private Members' time to deal with topical issues, we would not deal with them. I hope after today the Deputy Leader will tell the Leader that Members on the Government side, with Members on this side, seek debates on relevant issues and we hope to see them on next week's Order of Business.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Norris, Coghlan, Cummins and Quinn spoke about the quality of Seanad business. There has been a slow response in receiving legislation from the Dáil. The current situation is that there are two Bills before us on Committee Stage, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008, which will return next week, and the Harbours (Amendment) Bill 2008, which is ongoing.
The Dáil has completed all Stages of the Charities Bill 2007, which will come to this House, and is dealing with Final Stages of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill and the Cluster Munitions and Anti-Personnel Mines Bill 2008, which will come before this House in the next two or three weeks. In addition, we will have the standard legislation that follows the budget, the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 and the Finance Bill 2008. With that programme of activity in legislation, Senators will not have much about which to complain until the end of this session. There are at least half a dozen Bills we must parse and analyse and to which we must respond.
The statements with which we have been dealing this week and last arose from requests in the House. One thing that can be said about Standing Orders in this House is that they are more responsive than Standing Orders in the other House. It is not only the tolerance of the Chair that allows Members of this House to raise issues of the day in ways they cannot be raised in other Chambers. Senators make good use of that facility.
A debate has been requested on gangland crime. We had a very good debate yesterday on the annual report of the Criminal Assets Bureau. While it only indirectly involved this area, contributions from the Minister and many Members referred to the general situation, in particular the appalling murder of Shane Geoghegan and the need for a particular response. This was on the record and responded to yesterday. However, I hear what Senators are saying about the need for a more wide-ranging debate and their hope that this can be provided as soon as possible. Their request for immediacy has been heard and, hopefully, this debate can be accommodated next week.
The other issue in terms of the Business of the Seanad — it helps that many Members have expressed their dissatisfaction in this regard — is the need for the House to make clear to those organising the Government's business the requirement to initiate more legislation in the House. We initiated some Bills in the most recent session, but there is a capacity to initiate far more. The message from today's proceedings will be made known to relevant Ministers to ensure such Bills come before the House.
With regard to the call for a debate on the cervical cancer vaccine programme, the debate during Private Members' Time in the other House was a last-minute change from the motion on agriculture debated in this House. I am unsure why the Opposition party in the Dáil decided to have a debate on cervical cancer in that House, but did not choose to do so here. The last-minute change was the facility whereby the Dáil discussed the issue yesterday. If the issue were to be discussed here, that was a missed opportunity.
The previous decision on the cervical vaccine was made in August. Members are aware that since then the returns for August and September, in the run-up to the budget of 14 October, showed deteriorating public finances. On that account, one of the first decisions in trying to get a level of control on public finances is not to proceed with additional expenditure that had not happened in the previous financial year.
Senators Hannigan, Norris, Ormonde and Ó Domhnaill raised the issue of the banks, in particular, their effect on small businesses. Today, a spokesperson for one of the two largest banks — a second of such banks — said he does not see an immediate need for recapitalisation in terms of its profitability. We heard such comments before the introduction of the guarantee scheme and we are in a fluid situation. However, that a bank can declare profits of such a level indicates there is some buoyancy in the financial sector. There is a need to use this in a responsible way.
There is no doubt, as Senator Mary White said, that the engine of economic recovery and growth will be small businesses. We know too that in order to restart economic activity here, financial institutions must lend more. The traditional and dangerous way they have lent to date has been to concentrate most of their lending on property. The most effective way they can lend is to lend to small and start-up businesses and regenerate economic activity that way. The role of the Government in encouraging that is partly through the guarantee scheme and partly through the appointment of two people to the board of each financial institution, through the legislation that has been passed in the Houses. I am confident those measures will be taken and that the criticisms that are being voiced by all the political parties here, which are shared by the public in general, will be acted upon.
Senators Hannigan and Bacik mentioned the EPA report on water quality. The Government is all too aware of the situation with regard to water quality. This is one of the few areas in the budget of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that received a significant increase in a climate of budget reductions. The budget for water services increased by 19% in this year's Estimates. This is a serious statement of intent and acknowledgment that there are difficulties and that we have a significant amount of catch-up to do so that we have public confidence in our drinking water and our water system. I am confident the additional resources will be put to good use.
Senator Regan raised the question of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority. I understand — we must wait to see how effective this is — that most of the savings are as a result of a shared secretariat between the two. I share the concerns of many that having a shared secretariat in two different locations will be difficult to implement. If the rest of the decentralisation programme has been put in cold storage, this area should be also examined.
If the Government is to effect savings in this area and ensure both bodies can operate properly, they must be located near each other if they are to share such secretariat facilities. It should be put to the Minister to consider whether that is possible and whether it would effect other savings at the same time.
Senator Keaveney raised the question of the white fish fleet restrictions in the north west. We had a debate on fishing yesterday. The Senator made the point that this was a European Commission proposal that arose subsequent to our debate. Her concern will be passed on to the Ministers.
Senator Coghlan raised the issue of increasing debt levels and the possible need for corrective actions. The Government is not shy of corrective actions, as we have seen already this year. We had a series of Estimate adjustments prior to the introduction of the budget in October. If the global economic situation deteriorates further and if the assessment of what the retraction in growth is likely to be demands it, corrective measures will have to be taken. It is a responsible role of Government to do that. However, the Government's figures are that the economy will retract by 1.5% in 2008 and by a further 0.75% in 2009. As of now, the figures seem to be on track, with the hope for a recovery in the economy by 2010.
Senator Bacik asked about the climate protection Bill, which is due to be taken in the next session. That is predicated on the effect of the early negotiations towards a replacement for the Kyoto protocol, which will take place in the first instance in Poznan in Poland early in the year and will be followed by a subsequent meeting in Copenhagen. Once we have a clearer idea of what is happening internationally, it is our intention to return to the Bill. The promise to use Government time will be met in the context of the Minister reserving to himself the right to introduce a Bill if he feels he can do so.
Senator Coffey asked about the waste management strategy. I share many of his reservations and, on a personal note, I have always felt some discomfort regarding the carbon footprint caused by sending recycled material as far afield as China. If recycling requires the existence of markets, dealing with waste under the proximity principle means that recycled materials should be used close to where they were collected. Value can be added by expanding the country's recycling industry and the waste management strategy is predicated on that.
The Minister has already stated that if we introduce incineration, which the Green Party opposes, the capacity will be no greater than 200,000 tonnes.
The capacity for incineration in this country is 200,000 tonnes, which is no more than two average sized incinerators. The Senator is correct in noting that proposals have been made for upwards of a dozen incinerators but these cannot be viable because the waste for them does not exist. The only way to make them viable is to create more waste, which is not sustainable, or import waste from other countries, which we want to avoid. This is why the Government is dedicated to using other forms of waste management, such as mechanical and biological treatment, and a strategy based on international best practice will be published early next year.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 15 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey)
Against the motion: 23 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declard lost.